In a race whose result probably was ordained long before polling ever started, Democrat Takis Karantonis won a fairly large, if not smashing, victory and will succeed the late Erik Gutshall on the Arlington County Board.
Karantonis, the former executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, bested independent Susan Cunningham and Republican Bob Cambridge in the July 7 special election. He will fill the remaining 18 months of the term of Gutshall, who died of cancer in April.
Karantonis won 12,399 votes, or 62.4 percent of the total, compared to 6,467 (32.6 percent) for Cunningham and 945 (4.8 percent) for Cambridge. Turnout – 12.6 percent of voters – was nothing to write home about, but perhaps in line with expectations.
“Our victory is meaningful for two specific reasons,” Karantonis said in a statement once the vote totals were in. “It is the recognition of my many years of civic engagement in Arlington, and it serves as a testament to Arlington voters’ expectation of true progressive policies and effective leadership.”
Karantonis was able to roll up majorities in most of Arlington’s 54 precincts, although Cunningham won eight of them, largely in North Arlington single-family neighborhoods. The two tied in two precincts, Lyon Village and Nottingham.
Cambridge did not win a single precinct.
Given the public-health situation, it was a campaign largely conducted online and through the mail. Cunningham was attempting to re-create the circumstances that, in 2014, propelled independent John Vihstadt to a special-election victory over Democrats, but she was lacking a signature issue to use against the county’s dominant and often impregnable political party.
(Vihstadt, who in 2014 rode voter dissatisfaction with the Columbia Pike streetcar and other gold-plated capital projects to victory before being defeated in 2018, considered but ultimately opted against running in this race. He backed Cunningham.)
Cunningham said she considered her run for office necessary to raise awareness of what she sees as the dangers of monopoly government.
“I truly hope we started some important conversations about the perils of one-party rule and the need for greater accountability,” she said after the voting was over.
Cambridge, a 40-year resident of the county, never really got off the ground in the campaign. County Republicans, who have seen their fortunes fall even further in local politics since the election of Donald Trump, seemed disinclined to go full-throttle to support him, and even that basic DNA of Arlington campaigning – median signage – was missing from his outreach effort.
All three candidates were first-time office-seekers.
Republicans have not held a seat on the County Board since Mike Lane’s brief tenure (via a special election) in the late 1990s, and in recent years have found it challenging to recruit candidates for any local office. The arrival of Cambridge into the race did have an impact – signaling that better-known and better-funded Cunningham was going to have an even more uphill challenge of besting Karantonis, since the anti-Democratic vote would be split two ways.
Cambridge does, perhaps, get credit for the most out-of-the-box thinking in a campaign largely lacking it. He proposed that, instead of looking upward to create new housing, the county government promote going the opposite direction: underground living.
County election officials had encouraged voters to cast ballots in advance (by mail if possible), and about 52 percent of total votes cast were done prior to July 7. That compares to about 22 percent of the Arlington vote total that had been cast in advance in the June 23 Republican U.S. Senate primary.
Both Karantonis and Cunningham made a play for absentee voter, although the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s get-out-the-vote machinery had more success. Karantonis won 71 percent of the overall absentee votes casts, and garnered 59 percent of his overall vote total through absentee ballots. By contrast, Cunningham won 42 percent of her vote total via absentee votes, while Cambridge garnered 26 percent of his votes that way.
Karantonis’s road to the County Board dais benefited from the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s instant-runoff caucus to select its nominee. Initially running second behind School Board member Barbara Kanninen, he catapulted ahead of Kanninen by picking up support of those backing other candidates who had been eliminated, and ended up with the nomination.
With the special election in the rear-view mirror, eyes turn to what is expected to be a drama-free (at least on the local level) election on Nov. 3. County Board Chairman Libby Garvey, a Democrat, will face off against perennial independent candidate Audrey Clement in a repeat of the 2016 race, which Garvey won handily.
Republicans did not field a candidate for the Nov. 3 County Board race, and the Arlington Green Party, which for a period a decade ago ran candidates in local races, has not had candidates in recent years.